Words by Hannah Tapping
From city dewellers to artisans; a journey to the tranquil landscapes of Devon marks a transformative chapter for a couple who dared to tread a different path into the world of ceramics.
In the heart of Devon, where the moors echo with the whispers of tradition, a team of artisans at Feldspar Ceramics breathe life into clay, turning it into functional art. In conversation with founders Cath and Jeremy Brown, we discuss the intricate process behind their handcrafted ceramics, providing a glimpse into the philosophy that sets their creations apart. The couple have not always lived in Devon, moving only after the birth of their eldest son at a time when they were re-evaluating their lives, as Cath explains.
“Jeremy was travelling all the time and I was commuting into central London as an architectural designer and we suddenly thought, let’s not do this anymore!” Jeremy adds: “I was working for the UN at the time, originally based in Geneva and then moved to Nairobi before setting up an office in London. I was essentially helping big fashion houses become more ethical and sustainable and connecting them with marginalised communities, mainly in Africa, but also in the Middle East and South America. While it was an amazing job, it meant I was away most of the time. We had been listening to a lot of Desert Island Discs and various podcasts and essentially all these really successful people had one common regret, that they were away from home too much and didn’t spend enough time with their children when they were young. So, within a month we handed in our notice for work, and three months later, we were down in Devon.”
The couple moved from the city and rented a giant, sprawling granite farmhouse on Dartmoor when their son was just three months old. “It had no phone line, no internet, no mobile signal. It was just completely the opposite of the life we’d been living in London. ” says Jeremy. “We wanted to live somewhere where there were open horizons so, it was either the moor or the sea. While we love the sea, Jeremy has family in Devon and so the moor it was,” adds Cath.
The couple moved down without any real plans and certainly not one to start a ceramics business: “I had done a lot of pottery at school, but not functional, more sculptural ceramics,” says Jeremy. “I didn’t start making ceramics because I wanted to do it as a job. It was more for relaxation as I was quite burnt out after my time at the UN. Working with people who have nothing and feeling the responsibility for them was a lot. Emotionally, I was pretty stretched so we wanted to take a couple months off, which extended to about six months in the end. We were both thinking that we would try and get similar remote jobs to those we had before, but in the end decided that we didn’t really want to go back to our old lives, we had come to like the slowness.”
Jeremy bought a potter’s wheel from a potter who lived across the moor and began to make a few things. The same potter kindly gave him a few basic instructions and let them use his kiln and slowly Jeremy started experimenting: “He gave me a block of clay, a few basic tools and a rough idea of what to do. At that stage I only had the wheel; we didn’t have a kiln, which is actually quite essential! I would throw some pieces and then have to pop them in the back of the car and drive across the moor to my potter friend who would fire them for me. I would then drive back home to glaze them and then repeat the process for the subsequent firings. While it was all a bit bonkers, it was lovely to be just growing veg, learning how to throw on the wheel and listening to lots of radio. We were like a retired couple for a few months! We had both our families coming for Christmas and, having moved from a one bedroom flat in London, we were very short on tableware, we literally didn’t have enough plates and bowls, we didn’t even have a kitchen table big enough, so I built one – it’s the one I’m talking to you on now – and made a whole dinner service. At this point, I was literally just pottering around!”
Cath and Jeremy had talked about working together and, as they had successfully made the Christmas tableware, decided to start a business, beginning with some mugs. They began making in January 2016 and launched the brand at the end of the year. “After creating the prototypes at home,” says Cath, “we initially worked with a family run pottery up in Stoke, and we still do. However, as we found ourselves needing to expand our offering, and to be able to experiment and prototype more quickly, we realised that we needed to set up a workshop in Devon and so, with help the whole way from the amazing pottery team in Stoke, we did! Initially in Jeremy’s mum’s garage and now we have two workshops where we make 80% of the pieces.
“Each of the pieces is made with bone china, using a method called ‘slip casting’ – which is basically pouring liquid clay into plaster moulds. Mould making, slip-casting and industrial bone china production are all listed as critically endangered crafts by the Heritage Crafts Association in the UK. Many of the larger potteries in England now only serve as museums and showrooms, with all of their wares being made (more cheaply) abroad. The benefit of using bone china is that you can cast very finely but the finished product is incredibly strong. We begin by making plaster moulds, and that in itself is an incredible skill, and another dying industry. Everything is made 15% bigger than you want the finished product to be as it shrinks that much in the first firing.
“The liquid clay is poured into the mould and the plaster draws the moisture out. You then pour out the excess clay after an allotted amount of time depending on how thick you want the walls of the piece to be and so you’re left with the kind of exterior of the vessel. That’s then left to dry and then its sponged and fettled by hand – taking away the seam lines – and then fired with the first of three firings. What you are left with is known as ‘biscuitware’ or ‘bisque.’ It’s then fully vitrified and changes from a pale brownish, grey colour to bright white before it’s finally glazed and the colour is added. We have a team of four ceramicists who make everything plus three decorators, who then paint by hand. It was important to us that when someone is holding one of the mugs, for example, that there is a connection with the maker. Ours is not intended as a throwaway product and each one is very slightly different, with different nuances added by the different makers,” explains Cath.
Feldspar designs began with just using blue as the accent colour, as a reference to the willow pattern of old fashioned China. While the pieces are made using heritage techniques and material, Cath and Jeremy wanted them to have a modern edge. “We didn’t want them to be crafty or decorative, we wanted the designs to be trendless, so that they would fit into any kitchen and so each of our pieces follows the same design language.”
The company was named for a family of minerals that’s used a lot in ceramics in both the glazes and the body as Jeremy explains: “Feldspar is actually the most abundant family of minerals on the planet, which not many people know, unless you’re a potter or a geologist. Feldspar is under everyone’s feet, especially on Dartmoor, where the granite is made up of a mix of feldspar, quartz and mica. As we were living on the moor, in a granite farmhouse – and over millions of years, granite decomposes into kaolin, which is china clay – it felt like the name couldn’t be anything else. We actually had a completely different logo until the end of the summer, when some paper supplies arrived with our address hand-written on the envelope and we loved it so much that the person’s handwriting became our new logo!”
Feldspar is available to order online and is also stocked in the Conran Shop, Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. “Last year we did an exclusive collection with Fortnum and Mason, where we changed the handle to have new colours specifically for them, because they were launching a whole new coffee range, which was very popular. Recently we have also designed pendant lampshades in collaboration with Patrick and Neri Williams from Berdoulat, inspired by antique French glass shades. Fine bone china lends itself very well to lampshades because it’s opaque by day and then becomes translucent when the lights are turned on,” says Cath.
The couple’s vision is to continue to diversify and expand the Feldspar collections: “At the moment we are 90% tableware, but we very much want to expand into rest of the home. We’ve built a wood and metal workshop, so we’re going to use ceramic combined with those other mediums to create furniture and lighting. We’re also looking at creating playful greenhouses and tree houses and eventually want to have a series of workshops here based around a large courtyard, with a workshop for every medium you can imagine!” conculdes Jeremy.